I clearly remember the words of my physiology lecturer every time I see the daily highlights of every Tour de France stage every year. It’s been over a decade now but his words still resonate in my ears whenever I see an elite endurance athlete like a professional cyclist.
I’m writing this a few hours after Cadel Evans became the first Australian to ever win the Tour de France. The world often marvels at the levels of endurance that professional cyclists seem to naturally have. The truth is that besides for a few genes, they’re no different to the rest of us.
So what’s the point of this blog post you may be wondering? Well, besides a few interesting facts about the physiology of a professional cyclist competing in the Tour de France, I’d like to remind you that exercise is probably the next best thing you can do to your body besides getting the right daily nutrients and minerals.
However, like all things, too much of it may actually be bad for you. Here’s a brief story about my experience with excessive exercise and a sudden health condition that almost killed me.
Only a few people know about this but I thought I’d share it with you to highlight the dangers of overdoing your training and why finding a healthy limit to your body’s physical ability is important for optimizing your health.
I was 20 years old and in the prime of my life. I ate an extremely healthy diet and trained for two hours twice a day, five days a week. I literally used three t-shirts during each training session because each one got soaked in sweat due to the intensity of my cardio sessions.
I had 5% body fat and my resting heart rate was 36 beats per minute. I felt almost invincible…although most guys in their 20s seem to feel the same. I didn’t take any performance-enhancing drugs which made me feel even better knowing that I could naturally push myself to my body’s limit for longer.
Then the cold hard reality of being someone who pushed himself too hard for too long slapped me in the face…and trust me, it was scary.
I was with some friends on a holiday in Zanzibar, a small tropical island off the coast of Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa. I was relaxing in the warm shallow water with a friend when all of a sudden I felt dizzy. I stood up and turn to head back to the shore when all I can recall is the beach moving from its normal horizontal position to vertical.
I woke up on the beach with the rest of friends and other holiday-makers with stunned looks on their faces. I had no idea why I was covered in sand and actually got annoyed that some had gone in my ears and hair. I tried to get up to rinse the sand off when everyone rushed in…I remember someone saying “take it easy fella, the Flying Doctors are on their way”.
Flying Doctors?! Why? What happened to me?
Well, it turned out that my heart suddenly stopped and I collapsed in the water…subconsciously taking some water into my lungs in the process. My friend rushed over to me, hauled me onto his shoulders and rushed to the shore, screaming to the beachgoers to get help.
Thankfully, a nurse was on holiday at the same beach and after some CPR, she somehow managed to get me revived.
After spending a few days recovering in a pretty fancy Nairobi hospital I returned to South Africa to see a cardiologist. He did a whole series of tests, including an angiogram, and couldn’t find anything related to heart disease. He did however find a small yet significant difference in size between my heart’s two ventricles…the left one being larger than the right.
An ECG confirmed that I had Athlete’s Heart…a common condition in people who are fit. Nevertheless, despite everything he couldn’t find the reason why I experienced what is now known as Sudden Cardiac Death. My cardiologist isn’t alone…health professionals and researchers across the world still cannot explain why young, healthy and fit people can suddenly die. I consider myself extremely lucky.
The whole near-death experience definitely had an impact on my life. I reduced the frequency and intensity of my workouts and cardio sessions. Although, I still believe in the incredible benefits associated with exercising…just not like it’s my last day on earth, if you can excuse the pun!
Today I still enjoy running and you can read more about my latest hobby – barefoot running.
Frequent moderate exercise is something that everyone should try at least three times a week. However, the professional cyclists I talked about earlier don’t. No sir, they train hard. Much harder than what I went through ten years ago.
It’s been said that professional cyclists have a life expectancy 15 years lower than the average population. When you look at what the cyclists in the Tour de France put themselves through - well the ones who aren’t taking steroids like EPO and other banned drugs – it’s understandable to see why their bodies simply shut down before their time.
The Tour de France is a 21-day cycle race that covers a total of 3,600kms (2,200 miles)…including ascending the descending the mountain ranges of the Alps and Pyrenees. 21-days later at the end of the race, the average rider would have burned 123,900 calories…that’s roughly 6,000 calories per day!
This means that each rider needs to consume 9,000 calories a day to replace the calories burned while allowing for the recommended daily caloric intake for normal bodily functions. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to consume 9,000 calories a day, according to the exact menu from one of the Tour de France teams, click here to read an interesting and funny attempt by Joel Stein.
Professional athletes like those in the Tour de France are sacrificing themselves for something which I personally believe is not worth ‘dying’ for…no title, prize-money or prestige is worth your life.
It’s strange to look at the health spectrum and see two complete difference scenarios being played out daily.
I appreciate that some people may argue that these athletes ‘live’ more each day than many other people to choose to eat junk food and sit in front of their TVs every day…making the most of their natural ability and following their dream, as opposed to becoming obese and developing an array of hypokinetic diseases.
I too had dreams of being a professional athlete but thankfully, life gave me a reality slap that woke me up from the damage I was doing…it also gave me a second chance which many other people don’t get.